Thailand fell way behind in the race for tourists over the past year, but it’s working overtime to make up for lost ground.
By way of comparison, Thailand’s 2020 tourism revenue fell from $63.75 billion in 2019 down to $10.94 billion in 2020, as visitor numbers plunged by 83 percent to 6.7 million. The 2019 high-water mark made up more than 11 percent of the kingdom’s gross domestic product, and that revenue is sorely missed in Thailand right now.
With so much at stake, it’s not surprising that Thailand (more so than other countries in Southeast Asia) is under mounting pressure to recapture its tourism mojo in 2021.
#OpenThailandSafely Petitions to Reopen by July
July 1, 2021—that’s when Thailand’s leading tourism businesses want the government to fully reopen its borders to travelers.
Sixteen prominent tourism companies based in Thailand launched the #OpenThailandSafely campaign, a petition to the Royal Thai Government. The campaign encourages tourists and tourism stakeholders to sign the petition at OpenThailandSafely.org.
Pointing to the ongoing rollout of COVID-19 vaccination programs in Europe, the U.S., and other source markets, #OpenThailandSafely argues that July 1 is an ideal date for full reopening, given the following reasons.
- The majority of citizens in many source markets will have been vaccinated by then.
- It allows time for Thai medical authorities to vaccinate frontline staff in the hospitality industry, and/or vulnerable citizens.
- It gives international travelers time to make travel plans and bookings.
- It gives time for airlines, hotels, tour operators, and others to start marketing and sales to get ready for tourism operations to commence.
And the sooner, the better—proponents argue that Thailand will need at least a year or more to return to pre-2020 visitor levels. “The [July 1] reopening would be a strategic opportunity for Thailand to show a leadership role among Asian countries and prepare the way for a solid recovery of the Thai economy in 2022,” explained Willem Niemeijer, CEO YAANA Ventures, in a statement.
Shorter Quarantines for Vaccinated Tourists
The push to reopen on July 1 hinges on efficient vaccine deployment in the next few months. The Thai government already began its COVID-19 inoculation campaign on Feb. 28, leading up to a planned mass campaign beginning in June 2021 that will deliver 10 million doses per month.
The tourism ministry has already requested some 50,000 to administer to hospitality workers in Chonburi, Krabi, Phang Nga, Chiang Mai, and Phuket. These five cities will host hotel-based quarantines, covering up to 6,716 rooms where tourists will be permitted to move around hotel grounds.
For inbound tourists, the Thai government has already agreed to halve its mandatory quarantine from 14 to seven days for with proof of vaccination.
“Foreigners travelling to Thailand with vaccination certificates in accordance with the requirements of each brands, will need to quarantine for only seven days,” explained Health Minister Anutin Charnvirankul.
The shots must have been given within three months of the travel period to Thailand; tourists must show a negative result within three days prior to departure.
Relaxed Quarantine Rules Proposed for Some Destinations
The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) is actively pushing for added privileges for vaccinated visitors, in line with active vaccination programs being carried out in its major source markets.
"We have to be fast because we want to start welcoming tourists in the third quarter," TAT governor Yuthasak Supasorn told Reuters.To keep up with the TAT’s tight timelines, the Thai tourism authorities have started testing relaxed rules for a very limited set of new tourists.
In January, the Thai government approved a "golf quarantine" scheme that allows tourists to pass their required 14-day quarantine in any of six golf courses in Kanchanaburi, Cha-am, Chiang Mai, and Nakhon Nayok. Golfers will be tested upon arrival, and two more times afterward. The package includes 14 rounds of golf (18 holes each).
The first group of golf quarantine tourists, comprising 41 Koreans, checked into Artitaya Golf and Resort in Nakhon Nayok in February.
Shorter Quarantines in Select Resorts
In March, Thai Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn proposed "a plan for foreigners to undertake COVID-19 quarantine in popular tourist areas."
Beginning by May in the provinces of Phuket, Krabi, Surat Thani (Koh Phangan, Koh Samui), Chonburi (Pattaya) and Chiang Mai, the plan would permit visitors to leave their rooms (but stay within resort premises) if they test negative after three days. After 15 days and a clean test, they can leave the resort.
The provinces were chosen because “they are popular among tourists who usually stay for quite a long time, for one to three months," Ratchakitprakarn said. The plan may expand in scope, as other provinces may request inclusion in the scheme.
The scheme was earlier piloted in Phuket as a "villa quarantine" scheme, with a five-day seclusion period instead of three.
Final Plans Are Still Undecided
Longer-term plans may take shape by May 2021. These include creating travel bubble agreements with other countries and allowing vaccinated visitors to enter Thailand without the need to quarantine. The Health Ministry has already stated it will consider waiving quarantine altogether by October for vaccinated tourists, if the government manages to inoculate over 70% of medical personnel and at-risk groups in Thailand.
Final policy will depend on the results of the pilot projects mentioned above, and the virus situation in Thailand’s favored source markets. Those results are—to go by our last experience of a country-to-country travel bubble (Singapore and Hong Kong)—far too early to say.
"TAT plans to bring back international tourists by the fourth quarter,” explained Siripakorn Cheawsamoot, TAT deputy governor. “But that will depend largely on our policy development too.”
Thailand’s Sustainable Tourism Future
Mindful of the environmental and cultural degradation that have followed overtourism (Maya Bay, after all, was closed in 2018 due to these same concerns), a newly reopened Thailand will likely have a “less is more” approach: reducing tourist traffic to popular sites, and offering more sustainable travel options on the menu.
Reduced Tourist Traffic
Existing tourist sites will be stricter in implementing reduced carrying capacities. This will not only lower the risk of contagion, but will also help revive natural areas that have long suffered from the onslaught of tourists.
“The number of tourists and tourism activities have a direct impact on the health of coastal seas, marine wildlife and other natural resources,” explained Adis Israngkura, PhD, and Kanjana Yasen of the Thailand Development Research Institute in this article. “Managing the carrying capacity of the tourist sites is… key to reviving deteriorated ecosystems and to maintaining their health as the country’s sustainable source of tourism income.”
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (MONRE) has already implemented strict carrying capacity limits on Thailand’s national parks. “Capping the number of visitors is the most critical in managing nature-based tourism,” MONRE Minister Varawut Silpa-archa told the Bangkok Tribune. “I don’t want to see what we have seen at Maya Bay.”
To more equitably distribute tourist money and traffic, Thai tourism authorities are expected to direct tourists towards off-the-beaten-path community-based tourism (CBT).
Community based tourism hosts travelers in rural, culturally distinct communities. Guests are provided overnight accommodations at a homestay, and encouraged to experience the local lifestyle hands-on. Locals can use this direct tourist revenue in projects that improve the community’s quality of life.
The Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA) oversees CBT in Thailand, with existing projects in Koh Chang, Pattaya, Sukhothai, Loei, Nan and Suphan Buri. DASTA works with the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) to implement sustainability standards across its many projects, starting with six pilot sites and expanding to 80 CBT sites in the near future.
"We look at sustainable tourism to promote the industry not only to generate higher growth but also to ensure that tourism income of as much as three trillion baht is better distributed to local communities instead of foreign travel agents that avoid paying tax while heavily destroying our natural resources,” said DASTA deputy director-general Chuwit Mitrchob.
The DASTA website curates the agency’s top community-based tourism destinations and offers booking information for each spot.
Reuters. "Thailand's December Tourist Arrivals Down 99.8% y/y to 6,500." January 25, 2021.
Channel News Asia. "Thailand Starts COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign." February 28, 2021.
TTG Asia. "Thailand Launches Vaccine Passport, Inoculation Drive for Hotel Staff." March 5, 2021.
Tourism Authority of Thailand (Cision). "Golfing While Staying In Quarantine in Thailand Now the Reality." January 20, 2021.
Reuters. "Thailand to reduce quarantine period for vaccinated travellers." March 8, 2021.